- Contributed by
- Location of story:
- Java and somewhere in Germany
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 22 August 2004
The corridor was spotless; white tiles right up to the ceiling. That should have been comforting, after all there is nothing more wonderful than a shower, morning, noon and evening, when you live in the tropics.
And yet I could hardly breathe. The floor sloped down until I came to a blind wall. Only one door opening to the left. I had to enter, there was no choice.
In the showerroom there were 3 cubicles. The doors were closed. One hand was visible above one door, skeletal, dead.
You take a lot of things for granted when you are young. Acceptance comes naturally.
There I was, 8 years old by then, in a Japanese internment camp. And night after night I had the same dream. It had to be dreamt. There was no escape.
When we were 'repatriated' to Holland I started to read about the war. Not our war, the German war.
It was a tremendous shock to read about the extermination camps, Treblinka, Dachau.
This was my dream. I had been there.
Years later after a TV documentary I called the help line: "Could they put me through to a historian who could tell me if I might have read about these camps before we ourselves were interned?" After all, war came to the Dutch East Indies in 1942. Perhaps I had seen a story in a paper?
They did put me through to a historian. He thought it was highly unlikely that I should have seen anything in print.
That was the only explanation I could find at the time, that I had read about the Jews being slaughtered and that I had woven this into my dreams. Later I came to accept that somehow I became tuned in to events on the other side of the globe. Petulantly, I felt rather cross to begin with. It was quite enough to be interned by the Japs, without having to experience somebody else's problems. That feeling did not last. The more I read about the methodical massacre, the more I felt privileged that I had been allowed to share the fate of the Jews to some extent.
Initially, I was convinced that the war in Europe must have been far more horrible than our war, for a very peculiar reason.
The war must have been worse, because the Germans looked more recognizably human.
Not that the Japs looked inhuman. They did not look human at all. They meant two things: terror, death.
After the war,seeing a Jap on screen caused an instant physical reaction: vomit.
I could not bear to read about them and read about the German war instead, channelling some of my fury and disgust.
It was easy to visualize the situation, to walk with the victims. My respect and love for the Jewish people grew with each story.
(That respect, sadly, is diminished now because of the new situation following the murder of I. Rabin. And no, this is not anti-semitism. Just a dislike of the powers that be.)
Some twenty years ago I visited a monastery in Greece, on the road between Athens and Delphi. A monk suddenly addressed the group of tourists, "Is there a German among you?" A young man, a student perhaps, said, yes he was. The monk lashed out at him verbally. It appeared that during the war a German had been killed by the resistance and the usual revenge was taken. You find stories like that in France, in Holland. The exchange rate for one dead German was a churchful of people, preferably women and children, herded in. The doors are closed, they are burned alive.
It was a terrifying story, and I could feel for the monk, torn apart by his memories.
Yet, at the same time, there was a first stirring of an unexpected reaction. This young man was not even thought of at the time. He could not help it. Was this fair?
It was only when I read Laurens van der Post, a South African writer who had spent the war in the tropics and who died in England some years ago, that a similar feeling grew about my war.
He talks about these people as if they are human beings, was my first reaction to "A Bar of Shadows" Very puzzling.
But it was the beginning of a healing process.
A few weeks ago, a Japanese interpreter was kidnapped in Irak. The terrorists threatened to behead him. "Oh please, let him be rescued" was my first thought. "Look at that poor sweet face." And then it hit me, this was me talking about someone from Japan...
A final touch of irony. The main character in "A Bar of Shadow" is 'Rottang-Hara'
This is van der Post's name for Mori, the man in charge on Haruku; the man responsible for my father's death.
But that I learnt much later.
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